TW: This post discusses suicide and suicidal ideations.
“Mom? What are your flaws?”
“I don’t have any flaws,” I tease. “I’m so amazing even my mistakes are perfect.”
My teen snorts dismissively at my brash declaration – something I borrowed from my Harlem Renaissance reader and a great Black mind I have misquoted – and begs me to be honest.
“No really. What don’t you like about yourself?”
I pause and give the question real thought. “There’s nothing I don’t like about myself. Not now. But there was a time when this wasn’t always true. There were lots of things I didn’t like about myself. It’s taken me a while to get to this stage. You will too.”
Last night, my mother sent me a picture from my childhood. Someone had forwarded the image to her on WhatsApp and she was thoughtful enough to share it with me. My mother is dying, and she and I are in this weird space of trying to reconcile our unhappy past with no roadmap of how to accomplish that. (When I’m ready, I’ll talk about that in more detail.) The picture was of me, my best friend and an unknown girl. It was the unknown girl’s mother who had sent the picture to mine.
“I didn’t even recognize you!” was my mother’s caption.
How could she? She had spent so many years determined to NOT see me; to dismiss me and make me feel like a bother and burden that her inability to recognize her first born child in a 30 year old photograph was only natural. But as I said, she’s dying and we’re locked in this weird waltz of trying not to hurt/ignore the hurt the other has caused so instead I say:
“Ha! Don’t worry about it. I didn’t recognize myself either.” *smiley face*
Except, that wasn’t true at all. I recognized that girl immediately. And I was startled to see her face staring back at mine, her arrival unannounced; confronted with with her specter so abruptly.
You ever look at a throwback photo and wonder what was else was happening to the subject outside of that moment frozen so perfectly in time? I do all the time. I look at turn of the century photographs and ponder what the political climate was like. Did the subject hate their job? Had the neighbor’s dog taken a piss on their boots before they sat to pose? My sister commented on the photo and said I looked innocent, which was an interesting interpretation of the look on my face. I studied the picture, recalling the details about my hair, the watch I was wearing, the repurposed red vest I that sat awkwardly on my chest. I remember that phase of my life quite vividly, and neither “innocence” – nor the bliss associated with noun – are what I was feeling or experiencing. I suspect that the photographer caught me before I had a chance to put my mask on. I was always hiding my pain behind big smiles, crass jokes and manufactured exuberance.
Judging by the details, I’d say this picture was taken in early 1991.
I was depressed and suicidal, and if I hadn’t already attempted to take my life by the time this picture was taken, I would soon afterwards. The first time I tried to take my life, I swung my skipping rope over the scaffold of our water tower and tried to hand myself. One of my “uncles” came outside and caught me struggling for breath, eyes bulging. I can’t recall everything he said, but he never shouted at me or touched me. Eventually I untied the noose from my neck (the ground beneath me was uneven) and never tried to hang myself again. I wanted to die, but not like that. You guys know me, I don’t like struggle.
The second time I decided that my time on this plane had reached its expiry date, I swallowed a bottle of pills. I didn’t want a messy death that someone else would have to clean up afterwards, and the possibility of going to sleep and slipping into death was very appealing to me. You can’t imagine my disappointment when I woke the next morning, very much alive and grogginess the closest thing I would experience to death. There was no reason for my depression – at least not one that I felt was good enough. I know I felt unloved, ugly, fat and unvalued. In a desperate attempt to connect with someone I felt might understand, or at least sympathize, I shared my suicide attempt with my cousin.
“What do you have to be depressed about,” she asked. “What do you need to kill yourself over?”
I told her, but even as I said the words, they felt frivolous. My cousin confirmed as much.
“You are so dumb. So stupid,” she snapped.
Those cruel words weren’t what I wanted to hear, but maybe I needed to. I didn’t want people coming to my funeral, remarking about my corpse, “What a stupid and dumb girl she was.” I had just enough pride.
I haven’t made an attempt to take my life since. (Nature has taken on that task, serving me meningitis, a brain tumor and a handful of car crashes.)
I have never seen a therapist about my latent depression. I have learned to manage it, to live with it, to compartmentalize it. And so though I struggle with self image – 30 years after that picture was taken – the only panacea I have at my disposal is positive self affirmations. I tell myself I’m beautiful. I remind myself that I am loved, that I have loved and that I will continue to experience love. I refuse to focus on or rehearse my flaws, not when the consequence of doing so could be catastrophic. Not when momentary hatred for the image in the mirror might inspire me to erase it forever.
So you see all these girls posting and toasting themselves on the Internet? Leave them be. Leave them alone. They don’t need your spiteful commentary. Sometimes telling yourself you are beautiful isn’t conceit. Sometimes making those declarations to the world aren’t motivated by vanity. Sometimes those confessions are survival.